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The rise and rise of the birthday cake

From freezer cakes and synthetic ingredients to Bake Off-inspired showstoppers and a focus on organic, vegan and free from; Food Historian Angela Clutton looks back at the history of the birthday cake and how our tastes have changed over the past 40 years to mark organic and gluten free flour producer Doves Farm’s 40th birthday.

The history of the birthday cake: 1970s to now

1970s

With a growing number of homes having freezers and both parents increasingly going out to work, freezer cakes such as Black Forest Gateaux became popular.

In 1978 Doves Farm founders Clare and Michael grew and processed their first organic wholemeal flour. In the same year, the couple produced their first naturally gluten free flour after Clare’s mother was prescribed a gluten free diet.

This was the period in which Delia Smith was achieving huge mainstream success, showing time-and-skill-strapped families how to cook. Interestingly in her ‘Complete Cookery Course, published in 1978, Delia says; “Some of the chief contributors to the boredom of our modern synthetic diet are those dull, factory-made cakes and flavourless biscuits which come so prettily wrapped on supermarket shelves”. So in the very year of Doves Farm’s birth there was a growing appreciation of the importance of quality and natural ingredients in baking.

1980s

Fuelled by the 1981 Royal Wedding and Diana’s ‘cake’ of a dress, many little girls dreamt about having a ‘princess cake’ and recipes for making it at home using a Christmas pudding basin to make a bowl-shaped sponge, as much pink icing as possible, topped with a legless Barbie or Sindy surrounded by sprinkles abounded.

1990s

This decade saw home baking really take off and birthday cakes became much more elaborate. There was also a widening of understanding about the importance of quality ingredients, with Nigella Lawson emphasising the importance of quality chocolate in ‘How to Eat’, published in 1998.

2000s

Home baking amps up even more. Decorations are more elaborate than ever, but interestingly the classic and nostalgic Victoria Sponge endures in popularity as a base. Arriving on the heels of a really quite brief appearance of Sex and the City, cupcakes also become ubiquitous.

2010s

Bake Off arrives on screen, building on the ever-growing interest in home baking. The show makes it more important than ever for people to bake birthday cakes at home and raises expectations of what home bakers can create. Interest in provenance and organic, as well as in free from and vegan, grows.

The future…?

Angela Clutton predicts that birthday cakes will continue to develop their ongoing happy marriage between the natural and healthy with the iconic and retro, which Doves Farm is poised to tap into

The history of the birthday cake: From the ancient Greeks to 1970s

The idea of decorating a sweet treat with candles as a celebration goes back to the ancient Greeks and to Artemis the Greek goddess of the moon.

Through the 19th century, birthday cakes became more elaborate and often had layers. Baking powder was introduced in the second half of the 19th century – helping cooks achieve a good, consistent rise on their birthday cakes.

By the 20th century birthdays and birthday cakes had become much more prevalent. Tellingly, in 1928 Good Housekeeping published articles on ‘cakes for a party’

Housewives of the 1950s had more time and inclination to spend on baking and this tied in with the development of equipment to make baking easier and quicker.

As the 60s turned into the 70s, women no longer saw the same appeal in spending their days focussed solely on the house and family. Aspirations and careers developed, giving rise to two conflicting tropes: the need for convenience and speed; married with a desire to still fulfil the traditional role of wife and mother.

How will you be celebrating National Cake Day? We want to know! 

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